On 5 March 1785, 12 men met in the George and Dragon Inn, Downham, and formed a benevolent society, or in other words, a friendly society. The Downham Benevolent Society, as it became known, was to last for 128 years, until it was dissolved in 1913. There is no documentation known to have survived from the early years of the society and the first written evidence we have is the set of rules submitted to the magistrates at Preston Quarter Sessions on 16 December 1794. The year before, Parliament had passed an Act for the Encouragement and Relief of Friendly Societies, which, in return for registering their rules with the local magistrates, societies were offered some protections under the law, most notably the ability to reclaim any monies stolen from them by their treasurer. It is worth noting that societies were not under any obligation to register their rules – it was entirely voluntary.

What were friendly societies? Essentially, they were micro insurance companies, giving their members a benefit if they were unable to work through illness or an accident, and also a lump sum if one of their members died. Some offered a lump sum on the death of a member’s spouse and sometimes a pension, usually at the age of 70. In Lancashire, there were societies for men only, women only and a very few were mixed. They were formed by, or on behalf of, ordinary working men and women and were to be found in rural as well as urban areas. At the time the Downham society was formed, there were at least 90 friendly societies in Lancashire. There was a society in the neighbouring village of Chatburn that had started in 1780 and the John Taylor’s Society started in Clitheroe in 1788.

The 1794 rules of the Downham Benevolent Society remained in place, with amendments, for nearly 110 years, until July 1904. The affairs of the society were run by two stewards and a clerk/treasurer. The stewards collected the monthly subscriptions of 6d (2½p) as well as ensuring that members spent 2d per (just under 1p) at the meeting on ale. Their duties also involved visiting sick members and reporting on their progress to the following meeting, including informing on any suspicious claims. The stewards served three months in office. There was also a clerk/treasurer who kept the records and accounts of the society, and who was appointed by the members. He remained in post until he either resigned or was replaced.

For a members to join, they had to be fit and healthy and between the ages of 16 and 28. However, some members over the age of 28 did join, although we do not know why they were allowed to do so (The eldest was 33 on entry). When joining, a new member had to pay a fee of 2s 6d (12½p), pay the clerk 3d (just over 1p), and 4d (just under 2p) for a book of rules. He could not claim any benefits until he had been a member for 12 months. Although there were some societies that restricted their membership to a single trade or following, most accepted members from a wide variety of occupations. However, there were generally rules forbidding members from entering who were involved in what could be described as dangerous trades, such as mining, quarrying or stonemasons, painters, sailors and members of the army or navy. The Downham society was no exception to this rule. Out of the original 12 members, there was a carpenter and a wool comber: the remainder were all weavers. The occupational make-up of those joining the society runs in three phases: first, mainly trades connected to textiles, in particular, weaving; then, from the early1820s to the early 1840s, it was fairly mixed between textile trades and others; and from the 1840s onwards, textile trades were very much in a minority. This appears to mirror the employment opportunities within the village and surrounding area. Although Baines’ trade directory lists three cotton manufacturers in the village in 1825, there is a dearth of information for the following years. Indeed, there appears to be no information on the industries within Downham prior to Baines’ directory either.

If a member claimed for sickness benefit, they received 4 shillings per week (20p) or, if they were confined to bed, 6 shillings (30p). Any member reaching 70 years of age had 3 shillings per week, but if sick, lame or blind to have 4s or 6s as per normal sickness benefit. In 1822, the pension age was reduced to 65, but new provisions made it almost impossible for a member to receive it. In 1877, all reference to a pension benefit was removed from the rules. As the years progressed, the sum paid to sick members increased, and by 1901 sickness benefit had increased to 10 shillings per week (50p), but was paid for the first 12 months of sickness only. For the whole of the period from 1794 until 1904, the rate of sickness benefit could be reduced if the funds of the society got perilously low. In 1794, benefits were reduced if the funds dropped below £20: by 1904 that had risen to £1,000; an indication of the success of the Downham Benevolent Society in managing its affairs in a frugal and professional manner.

If members moved out of Downham (known as distant members), they could remain members of the society. If they became ill, distant members had to send a certificate signed by the minister and churchwarden from the parish where they were living. In 1877, the requirement changed to the certificate being signed by a surgeon.

In 1794, if a member died, their next-of-kin received £3, and if a member’s wife died, he received £1, but only for his first wife. By 1877, the sums had increased to £8 and £4 respectively.

Initially, the annual meeting was held on Christmas Day, when all members would be expected to attend. The usual programme for the annual feast of Lancashire societies was to meet up at the public house where they had their monthly meetings, go to church for a service and sermon, process around the village, then return to the pub for a meal and plenty to drink. The accounts would be also be read out and approved and any alterations to rules discussed and voted upon. These occasions were also used to recruit new members. In 1822, the annual feast for the Downham society was moved to Whit Monday, a favourite day with many Lancashire societies on which to celebrate their founding and take stock.

The banner, now fully restored by the People’s Museum in Manchester, is on display at Clitheroe Castle was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the Downham Benevolent Society. Lancashire Archives has a picture, taken in May 1885, of the banner with the members of the society outside the George and Dragon Inn. Lancashire Archive Office DDX 28/341

banner 2

Legislation passed in 1896 meant that the society had to revise their rules, and this was done in 1904. At the same time, the society formally changed its name to the Downham Benevolent Society. When initially registering its rules in 1794, it was described as “…the Benevolent Society begun 5 March 1785 at the house of Henry Armistead in Downham…”, and this remained its official title for 110 years! The new rules were a complete break with the past, as noted on page 3 - “All previous rules rescinded”. The changes were many, and the disconnect with the past total. For instance, junior members were allowed (from age one), and apparently including females up to the age of 16. Members could receive medical attendance and medicines as part of their membership. Because the list of members only extends to 1901, we do not know how many joined after the new rules were approved, although it seems likely that not many, if any, did so.

The government introduced the first National Insurance Scheme in 1911, and this proved to be the death knell for many friendly societies: the Downham society was no exception. The society applied to be dissolved in September 1912, although it was not received by the Registrar until December that year. The document, in the National Archives, shows that 45 member’s signatures approving the dissolution are visible, but it seems likely that another 3 are hidden by an attachment. 9 members did not sign, i.e. they did not approve of the society dissolving itself. The majority was just sufficient to legally be dissolved, and on 24 January, 1913, the society ceased to exist.

There is a problem as regards the number of members in December 1912, as, depending on which document in the National Archives one reads, the number varies between 56 and 60. Notwithstanding the confusion, the fund available to be distributed was £1,302. 5s. 1½ and members received a share depending on the length of membership.

Without doubt, the Downham Benevolent Society had been a success throughout its life, and the management of the society professional enough to ensure it survived much longer than many other societies. Over the 128 years, it would have seen many members through times of great distress caused by illness or death, by at least providing a financial lifeline that, but for its existence, would not have been available.

Topping, C.J.


National Archives:                             

FS3/117/349 – Papers of the Downham Benevolent Society 1794 – 1913

Lancashire Record Office:               

DDX 28/315 Rules of the Downham Benevolent Society 1901

DDX 28/340 Subscription Book Downham Benevolent Society 1824-1847

DDX 28/341 Centenary Picture, 1885

Baines, E.,    

History, Directory and Gazetteer of the County Palatine of Lancaster (1824/5, rep. New York, 1968) Vol2, 640

Topping, C.J., Welfare, ‘Class and Gender: non-affiliated friendly societies in Lancashire, 1750-1835’, unpublished DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 2006,  passim


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